Bullet-proof cars, soldier guards and bomb-proof accommodation are not the usual requirements for Birmingham art gallery directors.
But when Ikon’s Jonathan Watkins was asked to find the best art in modern Iraq, that’s exactly what he got.
The results of his potentially dangerous labours will be revealed when he opens the official Iraqi Pavilion at next month’s world-renowned Venice Biennale.
Watkins has spent months working with the Ruya Foundation for Contemporary Culture in Iraq (RUYA) to select paintings, photography, films, sculpture and drawings from a group of 11 contemporary Iraqi artists still living in the country.
Jonathan says: "The project’s logistics have been daunting.
“The security required for research – bullet-proof cars, soldiers, bomb-proof accommodation etc – is just the beginning of the story.
“Then there is the business of negotiating travel arrangements for the artists (visas etc) and transport out of a country peppered with check-points.”
The artists whose work will be displayed in Venice include Jamal Penjweny (b. 1981, Sulaymaniyah, Iraqi Kurdistan).
His photographic series features Iraqis in everyday places – on the street, in hotel rooms, in shops – as well as holding a photo of the former dictator over their own faces, demonstrating the lasting impact of his brutal regime.
Abdul Raheem Yassir (b. 1951, Qadisiyah, Iraq) is widely regarded as one of the best political cartoonists now working in Iraq, responding to the absurdity of his circumstances with ironic humour and poignancy.
While the 11 chosen artists – including two women – represent two generations and many regions of the country, Jonathan discovered that Iraq currently has precious little cultural infrastructure.
Because there are no ‘go-to’ curators or critics in Baghdad or Basra to provide guidance, few people on the outside know anything about what is happening within the art world inside the country.
Jonathan visited artists’ studios in Baghdad, Basra, the province of Babylon and to Kurdistan in Northern Iraq so that thousands of people attending the Venice Biennale will now be able to see work from Iraq that could never have been seen before.
Jonathan adds: “The artists we met, on the whole, were incredibly generous and gracious.
“They were as candid about their circumstances as they were hopeful for a better future in which they can be more in touch with the outside world.
“They work in terrible isolation, but keep on going.
“As much as possible, the Iraqi Pavilion will embody the nature of everyday life as it is lived now in Iraq – both within and beyond the art world there, such as it is.
“We envisage a celebration of creativity in all forms, at every level of society.”
The director of Ikon Gallery since 1999, Jonathan was previously Curator of the Serpentine Gallery (1995-1997) and Director of Chisenhale Gallery (1990-1995).
He has also curated a number of significant international exhibitions including the Guangzhou Triennial (2012); Shanghai Biennale (2006); Tate Triennial (2003) and the Biennale of Sydney (1998).
(RUYA) is an Iraqi registered non-profit, non-governmental organisation founded by Iraq art and culture enthusiasts aiming to create a civil, culture-rich society by building bridges with the rest of the world.
• Welcome to Iraq will be held at Ca’ Dandolo on the Grand Canal, a 16th century building that has not been used as a pavilion before during a Venice Biennale.
The exhibition will run from Jun 1 to Nov 24 (10am-6pm, closed Mondays).